She had no idea that the 19-year-old had begun exchanging sex for cash in order to help pay for food for her three younger siblings and two cousins, who live together in a one-room house in a waterfront slum community in Mombasa, Kenya. When Bella came home with rice and other ingredients for dinner at the end of the day, she didn’t explain how she had bought them.
“The pandemic broke down the economy, especially for my area. So I had to help in one way or another with expenses,” said Bella over WhatsApp. The teen asked that her name be changed to protect her identity.
Before the pandemic, Bella was a sophomore at a high school in the city, where she was an avid history student and enjoyed playing table tennis with friends during breaks between classes. But in March, as Covid-19 spread, Kenya shut down and so did the schools.
Unable to continue her studies remotely due to a lack of electricity and internet access, and with her mother’s income from selling vegetables on the street slashed, Bella began washing clothes to help supplement the family’s income.
When one of her customers who was much older pressured her for sex, saying he would pay 1,000 Kenyan shillings ($9) or 1,500 shillings ($13) for unprotected sex — triple what he was paying her for doing his laundry — she felt like she couldn’t say no. After he found out she was pregnant, he disappeared.
“The pandemic played the biggest role in me getting this pregnancy right now, because if the pandemic was not here, I would have been in school. Like this washing clothes, and all that stuff, meeting that man, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Bella, who is currently receiving social support and cash transfers through ActionAid, an international campaign group. She supplements this with odd jobs and laundry work.
Now three months pregnant, Bella said she won’t be able to resume her education when Kenya’s schools fully reopen in January — a friend of her mother’s, who had been helping to pay her fees, withdrew her support.
For many girls, school is not only a place of learning and a pathway to a brighter future, Gianni adds, it’s also a lifeline — offering vital nutrition services, menstrual hygiene management, sexual health information and social support.
The repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic on girls could be felt for generations.
“With the impact of Covid we’re seeing a very quick and dramatic retreat of the progress we’ve made on gender equality,” Julia Sánchez, secretary general of ActionAid, said, highlight issues where advocates have made strides in recent years, like in putting a stop to genital mutilation.
“All of a sudden it’s like we’ve all turned our backs and we’re starting to walk in the opposite direction.”
Out of school and facing extreme economic insecurity, many of the girls surveyed said they were forced to take on a bigger burden of unpaid care and domestic work, found themselves unable to access life-saving sexual health and reproductive services — including birth control — and were more vulnerable to gender-based violence.
Reported incidents of violence were particularly high in Kenya (76%), where young women surveyed repeatedly mentioned sexual abuse and early pregnancies. Echoing Bella’s story, several girls and young women who were out of school told surveyors they were forced to exchange sex for money out of financial desperation, ActionAid wrote.
Frustrated advocates say cuts to foreign aid by donor countries, like the United Kingdom, amid a wave of Covid-induced austerity measures will have devastating impacts on girls’ education and leave them without the safety net that school offers. They warn that failing to place women and girls at the center of recovery plans comes at a steep cost to economic growth, especially when faced with one of the deepest recessions since World War II.
“Governments are under the squeeze because aid is going to be cut, because revenues are going down because of the economic effects of Covid, and also because there are greater demands in the health sector,” Lucia Fry, director of research and policy at the Malala Fund, said. “In some cases, not all, countries are actually diverting funds away from education at this time of great need.”
A number of advocacy groups are calling on governments to maintain the priority that they’ve given to education, while simultaneously looking to the international community to provide fiscal stimulus in the form of debt relief and emergency aid. Longer term, they’re looking at reforms in things like the international tax system so that countries can keep more of the revenues that they have for public services.
In the meantime, teenagers like Bella are having to shift their expectations from a future in school to one at home.
“It has been so hard for me. I lack words to explain how I feel,” Bella said.
“Going back to school won’t be possible … and my baby’s coming soon.”